Social Darwinism and Its Effects on the American Value of Progress

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Value for progress is one of the cornerstones of American society that is most highly regarded. Americans have always been fascinated by the concept of advancement, whether it be in politics, the economy, science, or technology. The American society was dedicated to progressive change through the use of science and reason. However, a different ideology, Social Darwinism, quickly engulfed their culture and had an impact on every part of American life between the end of World War I and reconstruction. The philosophical rejected the notion of advancement through reason and science in favor of a process of natural selection, in which only the most advantageous individuals advance in terms of their economic, social, and political circumstances. It challenged teleology, and in doing so, decentralized the ability of individuals to direct their own evolution. Since its introduction, Social Darwinism not only formed justification ground for imperialism and conservative social policies, but also opened channels for racism, sexism, and classism to the American society.

The Origin

Social Darwinism is a pseudo-scientific philosophy that emerged from Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In the Origin of Natural Selection (1859) Darwin argued that the scarcity of natural resources leads to competition among species and after that a struggle for survival (Hawkins, Mike, 261). Through the struggle to survive, the best-adapted individuals of the given population would be able to succeed, reproduce, and even pass their beneficial adaptations to their offspring (Hawkins, Mike, 260-261). On the contrary, poor-adapted members would not survive, and thus their lower quality traits would not be passed to the next generation. Five years after Darwin’s publication, Herbert Spencer invented the phrase “survival of the fittest” while introducing the idea to the human population (Leonard, Thomas, 37-38). Spencer used the theory to explain the existence of humankind and stretched the theory to the reality that human being are competing for resources, and only the fittest survive: Thereby, he popularized the idea of social Darwinism.

Social Darwinists argued on the same basis and coined the notion that the best-adapted humans would rise to the top of the social, economic, and political strata, and their counterparts would struggle to “survive’ (Leonard, Thomas, 39). Moreover, they argued that the members at the very top of the strata, through hard work or birth, where the best-adapted people. Social Darwinism used the argument to argue against social welfare policies that sought to help the poor through redistribution of resources (Leonard, Thomas, 40). To them, redistributing resources to form the best-fit citizens to the least-fit would violate the natural order and in time, allow the perpetuation of the less-fit members.

Social Darwinism and Teleology

Teleology is the concept of explaining phenomena regarding their purpose rather than the cause by which they arise. According to teleology, human behavior is caused or governed by their chosen paths (Jacobi, Daniel, and Annette Freyberg-Inan, 94). That is, individuals are free to select the most appropriate means to achieve their goals; they are free to choose their own paths and enjoy or suffer the consequence. However, the emergence of the social Darwinism challenged teleology. The social Darwinists believed that people could not choose their paths and could not direct their own evolution. Instead, the destination was based on the merits of natural selection, where certain classes, races, genders, and social beings were superior to others due to their efforts or that of their parents.

Criticism of the Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism was introduced to America by Richard Hofstadter in 1941 and encompassed several different areas pertaining the extension of Darwinism to the social realm. It was interpreted by thinkers to reinforce individualism, a minimalist government, and theories of racial and societal hygiene, to notions of racial and gender superiority (Jacobi, Daniel, and Annette Freyberg-Inan, 94). Together with William Graham Sumner and most politicians of the 19th century, Hofstadter advocated for Social Darwinism to justify their social, political, and economic ambitions as well as find masses to accept the given notion.

Darwin’s impact on biological knowledge cannot be undermined. However, while he is praised for his commitment to monogenic views of human origins, his views of natural selection was the ground for the justified division of people into races, classes, gender, and places of origin (Rose, Steven, 1). His conviction that evolution was progressive bore the idea that white races were evolutionarily more advanced than the blacks (who were still closer to apes than whites). This set precedence to the social Darwinism to set racial hierarchies in Europe and later on, America. Moreover, despite lack of scientific evidence, whites viewed themselves as most superior beings, while blacks the lease superior: A position that promoted ills such as slavery.

Secondly, Darwin’s view of sexual selection promoted gender discrimination. In his biological view on natural selection, men were “more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than women” and that had larger brains compared to women (whose skull is said to be intermediate between a child and a man’s (Rose, Steven, 1).” This viewpoint that men and women are not equals and social Darwinists promoted the concept to show that women are inferior beings (Hawkins, Mike, 260-261). Such assertions are not evidenced especially in the modern world where liberated women are making giant strides in all fields that men previously dominated.

Thirdly, American social scientists operated within the confines of social milieu committed to the Enlightenment's view of modern society adapted to progression and representation in government. They believed that people had the power to progress and changed their conditions (Jacobi, Daniel, and Annette Freyberg-Inan, 94). However, social Darwinists oppose this teleological thinking, and instead brought ideas of natural selection and, superior and inferior beings. While the social milieu was hospitable to the progressive perspectives of populations, social Darwinism underlined such progression. Instead, the poor and less fortunate were seen as “unfit,” and were not to be helped in any way, lest they destroy the natural order (Jacobi, Daniel, and Annette Freyberg-Inan, 95). As a consequence, the economic and social classes grew and the gap between the rich and the poor widened.

Lastly, the pernicious notions of Social Darwinism negatively affected American’s relationship with other nations. As a massive flow of immigrants came to the United States during the Industrial Revolution, whites viewed them with disdain (Rose, Steven, 1). They believed that by their places of origin, Eastern or Southern Europe, the immigrants were racially inferior and thus less evolved than those from England, Germany, or Ireland. Moreover, the belief or superiority formed the backbone of American imperialism in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, after the Spanish-American war. Justifying their deeds, imperialists argued that since whites Americans were superior, it was their duty to civilize the “backward” individuals. Instead of bringing of bringing order to the world, Americans continued “colonizing” and introducing conservative social policies to other presumably “backward” thinking nation, and dominated their worlds through social Darwinian justification.

In the American society, people like Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln showed some efforts to fight Social Darwinism. King opposed the oppression and marginalization of individuals based on their skin color and started a social revolution that led to the equal rights afforded to black Americans (Jackson, Thomas, 13). On the other hand, through the legislature, Lincoln sought for the liberation of slaves and their freedom as Americans (Stanley, Matthew, 444). They were no-longer white’s property but people that could think and curve their own paths. The fight towards social Darwinism was progressive, and to this day, it is still ongoing.


Social Darwinists corrupted Darwin’s language and theories of natural selection to satisfy and justify their economic, social and political explanations. Through social Darwinism, people could justify racism, sexism, classism, and other social ills as long as it fitted their natural selection claims. Moreover, it opened doors to oppression by “bigger’ imperialistic nations like America to mistreat people from other countries and even impose conservative social policies on their nations. While individuals like Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln fought to dispel the notion of superior and inferior people, and all injustices based on race and gender, the echoes of social Darwinism still linger in America to date. By social Darwinism, people are no-longer equals but subjected a product of their parents, either fit or unfit and justifiably treated according to the status of fitness to the laws of natural selection.

Works Cited

Hawkins, Mike. Social Darwinism in European and American thought, 1860-1945: nature as model and nature as threat. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Jackson, Thomas F. From civil rights to human rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the struggle for economic justice. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Jacobi, Daniel, and Annette Freyberg-Inan, eds. Human beings in international relations. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Leonard, Thomas C. "Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought." Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71.1 (2009): 37-51.

Rose, Steven. "Darwin, race and gender." EMBO reports 10.4 (2009): 297-298.

Stanley, Matthew E. "A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle." Civil War History 62.4 (2016): 442-445.

June 26, 2023

Sociology History

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